BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Lithuania 2004
HITS: 1903 | 8-09-2004, 12:31 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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“If our citizens allow Paksas’s political corpse to be raised again, Lithuania will face the gloomy prospect of becoming a black hole on the outskirts of Europe.”
Lietuvos Rytas  (7th April 2004)

BHHRG has followed the progress of Lithuania’s political travails closely since the surprise election of Rolandas Paksas as the country’s president in January, 2003. The Group visited Lithuania in February 2004 as Paksas fought off allegations of corruption and compromising the country’s security  by going over the heads of his parliamentary opponents to appeal directly to the people in a series of nationwide town hall meetings. BHHRG concluded that much of the information disseminated in the West about Mr. Paksas was biased and uninformed. The roots of the crisis fundamental to any democracy were never fully explored, namely, who gives a politician legitimacy ? Is it the voters or non-elected bodies like the constitutional court?
Can such a court pass retrospective legislation that effectively re-writes the rules according to which the political game is played? This is what the Lithuanian Constitutional Court did on 25th  May 2004. The result was that Rolandas Paksas has been banned for life from holding any further public position.
In the presidential election that took place on 13th and 27th June former president Valdas Adamkus, defeated by Paksas 18 months earlier,  regained office but only after beating off a strong challenge from another  outsider,  this time from   Kazimiera Prunskiene who had been Lithuania’s  prime minister between 1990 and 1991. Like Mr. Paksas Mrs. Prunskiene also came under attack for ‘leftist, pro-Russian’ bias. Her allegations of foul play in the counting of the votes were discounted.
Lithuania also held its first election to the European Parliament on 13th June in tandem with the presidential poll. The recently formed Labour Party gained 5 of the country’s 13 seats  confirming predictions that it is the new star in the country’s political firmament despite not putting up its own candidate to rival Adamkus for the presidency.  The Labour Party is tipped to do well in parliamentary elections scheduled for October, 2004. However, the party’s political orientation remains cloudy and the majority of Lithuanians who have lost out in the familiar pattern of post-Communist ‘reform’ may find themselves both surprised and disappointed  as the Labour Party  embraces  British, New Labour market fundamentalism rather than the more socially-orientated policies they crave.

Introduction

“The people have lost the government’s trust …Wouldn’t it be easier if the Government simply dissolved the People and elected another?”
Bertolt Brecht (June, 1953)

Lithuania continues to face a profound crisis of political legitimacy. The question to be decided is the most basic issue in any political order. Who rules in Vilnius? Does the Lithuanian people choose the politicians who will rule them or do their rulers choose whom the people may endorse? Although the Lithuanian constitution emphasises the inviolable sovereignty of the people, when it comes to presidential elections the Lithuanian political class seems to stick more to the Leninist dictum: Trust is good, but control is better.
Rather than allow the electorate to choose between any of the candidates meeting the registration requirements for the poll set for 13th June,  on 25th May, 2004, the Lithuanian Constitutional Court ruled that a candidate already  registered for the presidential elections was barred for life from standing for public office. That candidate was the former president, Rolandas Paksas. The Lithuanian Parliament had voted to remove him from office six weeks earlier. But the voters may not have been as disgusted with Mr Paksas as two-thirds of the MPs who had voted to impeach him. In any other country, an impeached president would be a haunted and disgraced figure, but in Lithuania it is the former president, Rolandas Paksas’s continued popularity which haunts  the political establishment which ruled him unfit to hold office.
Every time the Lithuanian political establishment has thought that it has solved the so-called Paksas problem over the last year, its expectations have been dashed. When allegations of impropriety first arose against the newly-elected president in autumn 2003, Rolandas Paksas did not fall on his sword and resign. Instead he fought back and defied the parliamentary majority ranged against him. Even when both the Constitutional Court and then the Lithuanian Parliament, the Seimas, voted to remove him from office,  Mr Paksas refused to retire from politics. Instead his impeachment seemed to offer him an arena for a political comeback.
As a skilled and effective election campaigner, Mr. Paksas promptly took up the challenge of seeking the Lithuanian people’s verdict and thereby reversing the parliamentary vote to impeach him. Already in the months before the final vote terminating his term in office, Mr. Paksas had been building up a remarkable comeback coalition by touring the country to rally support and seek to rebut the charges in public forums. A number of parliamentarians who were not previously aligned with Mr Paksas joined his cause.
From the point of view of Mr. Paksas’s political opponents who had carried the impeachment in April, 2004, the prospect of a successful Paksas re-election bid was a nightmare. Nor was it a groundless fear. Opinion poll evidence in Lithuania has been flawed in the past, but anyone familiar with the tendency of local pollsters to exaggerate by 50% or more the anti-Paksas vote and to downplay his support could see that in all probability, Rolandas Paksas would come ahead of the field in the first round of voting even winning outright.
The barring of  Paksas’s  candidacy raises serious questions about the rule of law and democracy in Lithuania. One of the European Union’s new members has set a precedent not only by impeaching its president but also by the frenzied efforts made to forestall him offering himself to the people’s judgement. The fact that Mr Paksas could not be left to the electorate to dispose of is striking.
Unforeseen Consequences
The Lithuanian constitution foresees no punishment for a president convicted of breaching his oath of office except the disgrace consonant with that virtually unprecedented humiliation. The fact that its  framers - many of them still alive today -  failed to stipulate any consequences other than the loss of office for an impeached president is at the heart of Lithuania’s current crisis. Clearly a significant section of the Lithuanian public did not accept the verdict of the Lithuanian parliament acting as the trial court for President Paksas until 6th April, 2004 and, in the absence of any law or constitutional text barring him from seeking re-election many thousands of supporters signed up to re-nominate him. This reality of a popular base for Mr Paksas challenged the assumption that even if an impeached and disgraced president were brazen enough to seek another term in office an outraged public would either provide too few signatories to register a candidacy or would overwhelmingly reject him at the polls.
Impeachment is inherently a political process. Parliamentarians act as judge, jury and (some of them) prosecution. Precisely for that reason an impeachment process needs to reach a higher standard of plausibility than either a normal trial where doubts about the prejudices and motives of judge and jury probably don’t exist or of a parliamentary vote where party and personal loyalty decide so much. Unless impeachment commands moral certainty it is tainted by the suspicion of political bias. Impeachments should not be launched without the confidence that their verdict will command a public consensus otherwise the political stability and fabric of a nation may be more damaged by the process than by the alleged misdeeds of the accused president.   The less-than-overwhelming endorsement of the process by the Seimas (86 votes in favour, only one more than necessary)  shows that this high standard was not reached.

Stop Paksas!

At first, the Lithuanian establishment seems to have hoped to use various forms of moral pressure to prevent Mr. Paksas seeking re-election. But the Lithuanian Central Election Commission refused to bow to the pressure from the parliamentary ethics commission to ban him in violation of the various constitutional and legal provisions preventing a limitation on candidates qualified by existing law  and with the requisite number of signatures.[1]  Therefore, on 4th May, with the presidential election looming on 13th June ,  the Lithuanian Parliament passed a retrospective law to prevent impeached presidents from standing for office for at least five years. It was passed by 64 votes to 17 with 5 abstentions. It was clearly a Lex Paksas. On 12th May, the Lithuanian Constitutional Court refused to hear an appeal against the new law filed by 1,370 citizens of the republic on the grounds that only political parties not private persons had the right to raise such issues with it.[2]   29 parliamentarians then appealed to the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the retrospective law.
Among them was one unlikely appellant. Raimondas Šukys, deputy chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Seimas as well a member of the special committee of inquiry into President Paksas and Prosecutor in the Seimas of the President, joined the other MPs who belonged mainly to the pro-Paksas minority in the Seimas. Mr. Šukys explained that he believed that the Lithuanian Parliament should not interpret the Constitution. That was the task of the Constitutional Court. In a meeting with BHHRG in Vilnius, Šukys had  reverted  to his pre-1991 persona by complaining that Mr. Paksas had further damaged his cause by refusing to “apologise” or even indulge in a period of “self-criticism”.
Whereas the other appellant MPs were hostile to the implications of the retrospective law as well as the principle of enacting a post-facto punishment not in the law at the time of Mr. Paksas's impeachment trial, let alone before it, Mr. Šukys wanted to see the ex-president forbidden from seeking re-election but in accordance with what he judged a more constitutionally  appropriate manner, i.e. judicial interpretation not retroactive legiaslation.


[1] See “An Iranian Solution to the Paksas Problem” http://www.oscewatch.org/LatestNews,
[2] See “Lithuanian Court upholds decision to ban impeached President”,  The Moscow Times, 12th May, 2004 
www.rosbusinessconsulting.com/.

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